Health Diary: Hay fever

Video transcript

Dr Caroline West

For most of us, Spring is a beautiful time of year – flowers, sunshine and baby animals. But for people with hay fever , also known as allergic rhinitis – the arrival of September is not something to be sneezed at. In fact - it affects around 18% of Australians and New Zealanders.

So what exactly is it?  Well surprise surprise it’s not caused by hay nor does it result in a fever, and it’s not in response to a food allergy.   When you have hay fever your immune system is reacting to usually harmless airborne substances, such as pollens, or grasses in the spring months; and pet hair, dust mites or mould all year round.

Hay fever is an allergic response to these ‘triggers’ causing the mucous membranes of the eyes and nose to become inflamed.

Common symptoms include:

  • nasal congestion, runny nose, post-nasal drip, sneezing or a stuffy nose.
  • eyes can be itchy, puffy, red or watery.
  • you may breathe through your mouth and wheeze.

Other less common symptoms are:

  • coughing, headaches, ear aches,  and throat irritation.
  • sleep disturbance, and fatigue can affect your concentration  

It’s important to be aware that untreated hay fever may increase the risk of developing asthma.  And if you have asthma it’s vital you get your hay fever under control as it can make your asthma worse.  

Hay fever is most common in adolescents, but luckily most will grow out of it. However some people will continue to  suffer from allergies well into their old age, and must learn the best way to prevent it and reduce symptoms.

Diagnosis of hay fever is usually straightforward with a history and examination. Sometimes blood or allergy skin tests are used to identify triggers. 

Skin testing involves pricking the skin on your back or arm with tiny tubes that contain common allergens to see how your skin reacts. If you are allergic your skin will get red, swollen and itchy at the test site.

If the allergen is confirmed than avoidance where possible is key to controlling your symptoms. 

Treatment for hay fever is a mixture of self-care and medications like nasal corticosteroids .

Self care means trying to avoid the triggers that can cause allergic reactions:

  • In your garden, choose plants that are pollinated by birds or insects – rather than those that release seeds into the air
  • Reduce your exposure to dust, dust mites, animals and fur – dusting with a damp cloth and vacuuming regularly will help

If you are allergic to grass pollen in particular, ‘avoiding’ it can be very difficult. Here some tips that may help -

  • Avoid being outdoors on high pollen days, and on extremely windy days
  • Shower after outdoor activities – especially when pollen is high
  • Use re-circulated air in the car when pollen levels are high
  • Avoid activities known to exacerbate pollen exposure – such as lawn mowing
  • Wear sunglasses – it keeps pollen out of your eyes
  • Dry your bedding, towels and clothing inside, or in a tumble drier. 

But if something triggers hay fever – 

  • Splash your eyes with cold water to flush out any allergens
  • And try ‘nasal washing’ which involves rinsing the inside of the nose with warm salty water to flush out irritants and excess mucus.

Medications do not cure hay fever but medications  like  intranasal corticosteroid sprays are often the most effective when used regularly for managing hay fever.  They reduce the inflammation that produces symptoms.  Antihistamines may help too. But it’s important to consult your doctor to see which medication is best for you. 

There is also the medical procedure of ‘desensitization’ or allergen immunotherapy – which involves reducing the allergic reaction by gradual exposure to the allergen via injection, tablets or drops under the tongue.  This is a long term treatment usually lasting 3 to 5 years and supervised by an immunologist or allergy specialist.  

If you or anyone you know suffers from any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is important to consult with your doctor. Getting the right treatment and avoiding triggers where possible is key.  

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